By LARRY VAUGHT
When Makayla Epps steps on the basketball court, she’s not worried about making friends with opponents. In fact, she takes it as a compliment when Kentucky senior teammate DeNesha Stallworth says she is “physical and mean” on the court.
“When I step on the court, I don’t want to go out there and be nice to Auburn or Alabama or Duke or Louisville,” said Epps, a freshman from Marion County, during UK’s media day Tuesday. “You don’t want to go out on the court and be nice to anybody. You have got to have a little meanness, a little toughness so they know you are not scare of them.”
Epps often struck fear into high school opponents. She scored over 3,300 points, led Marion to a state title and 39-0 record as a senior, and was a three-time all-state selection and McDonald’s All-American.
Coach Matthew Mitchell says her character has impressed him as much as her talent.
“She comes in with a lot of accolades and with high expectations. I’m very impressed with how she has handled all that,” Mitchell said. “Wherever she’s had a deficiency and freshmen coming in with some gaps, whether it may be effort because they’re not used to the pace of practice or whether it may be conditioning or whatever it is, freshmen have an adjustment period, and every time Makayla has had something presented to her where she needed to get better, her response has been phenomenal.
“She’s proven to be very receptive to coaching, and so when you get a real talented player who is not afraid to address her weaknesses, that’s very, very exciting for a coach.”
Especially when that 5-10 point guard and the strength and versatility to do more. Stallworth, an all-American candidate, says Epps can play all five positions, something Mitchell supports.
“She can literally play every position on the floor for us, and we’ve had some versatile players before. The thing that sort of makes her different is she can legitimately play the one, the point guard position, which is the most difficult position on our team to play,” Mitchell said. “So she can play them all and play them all well.
“Last night we had our tip‑off celebration with our booster club, and we talked to her and she addressed the crowd, and she said she’s just here to help and she wants to win championships. So just a very humble attitude for a player of that caliber is exciting for a coach to see. I’m very optimistic about her future, and I think she has a chance to have a good freshman season.”
Epps knows her versatility is a strength.
“Where I am such a strong, larger, taller point guard than most, whoever is guarding me is primarily going to be smaller than me, so we are looking for the mismatch. Right now I have been playing the one through the three. If coach Mitchell believes I can play the four and five, then I can,” she said. “Playing the point here is more challenging than high school because the talent and competition here is so much more intense.
“They push me to my limit every day. I feel myself getting better. I am way better now than I was back in March when I played in the state tournament for Marion County. I feel it and can see it my play now. They are pushing me daily to get better.”
Epps knows her defense needs work.
“The defense here is way more intense than anything we did in high school because we primarily played a 2-3 zone. Up here, I am challenged to move my feet and guard my man one on one. I am not the strongest defensive player, but we do fundamentals every day and I feel it is progressing and I am getting better,” she said. “My key weakness is I am not the greatest defensive player. Coach Mitchell just pushes us and doesn’t get angry with us because he knows we are capable of doing it.
“He will stop, break it down and teach it to me where other coaches might yell at me or harp on me for getting it wrong. He knows I am trying to learn and he shows me how to get better. I like that.”